In some parts of America, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested each year for marijuana.
In West Hollywood, it’s on the dinner menu.
Lowell Cafe, opening next month in Los Angeles, is the country’s first legal cannabis restaurant, meaning the first business in the US licensed to serve meals with both food and weed. Inside the marijuana restaurant and lounge, “budtenders” will greet patrons and help them navigate menus of joints, bong service, dab rigs and other cannabis treats that they can then consume inside the cafe, alongside farm-to-table dishes.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California see this new business as a next big step toward the “end of prohibition” in America, and a major turning point in the continuing effort to legalize marijuana for recreational and social use.
“Cannabis consumers have had to kind of be closeted,” said the chef, Andrea Drummer, standing inside the Lowell kitchen on a recent afternoon while perfecting a mascarpone-filled crepe with peaches for the dessert menu. “To be able to engage in and consume in a space with like-minded people and not have it be secret and not feel judged, I think it’s an exceptional concept.”
It’s been a long journey to get to 1 October, Lowell’s grand opening. The much-hyped restaurant is breaking ground at a time in which marijuana is still considered an illegal drug in many parts of the US, a country where more than one person is arrested for cannabis every minute.
California has consistently led the way on marijuana reform, becoming the first state to approve medical cannabis over two decades ago. The state officially legalized recreational pot in 2016, but it’s been a slow process to establish regulations that allow entrepreneurs to take advantage of the new law.
It’s also still illegal to smoke weed in public in California, and while there are some “lounges” and clubs where people can gather and smoke, there have been no businesses that operate like traditional restaurants. The city of West Hollywood, a major LA nightlife hub, wanted to change that, and recently created a licensing process, drawing hundreds of applicants.
“This is a really, really big moment,” said Jackie Subeck, a local cannabis consultant and advocate who won one of the recent West Hollywood licenses and plans to open a cannabis spa and cafe in the city. “This doesn’t exist anywhere … We’re building the plane while flying it.”
West Hollywood officials have helped Lowell navigate conflicting and confusing state and local regulations, though there are some challenges they haven’t yet been able to resolve. Lowell so far has not sorted out a way to legally serve fresh food that is actually infused with cannabis, since there is no state health regulation permitting it. But the cafe did find a way to secure approvals for both food and weed consumption in one location.
“It’s a fun opportunity, because it’s so unknown,” said Kevin Brady, the restaurant’s director, as he stood at the site of the cafe, which is still under construction. “Being the first, we want to make sure we set the benchmark very high.”
Brady has been working to build a restaurant that he said would feel like a “light, bright airy oasis of a space that people can consume cannabis” and would defy stoner stereotypes – no lava lamps, black lights, Led Zeppelin posters or beanbag chairs. “It’s not the college, Dave Matthews Band kind of vibe. It’s this really elegant place.”
This summer, a rabbi from a synagogue across the street expressed concerns about the smell of marijuana, but Brady said the restaurant would have an advanced air filtration system that would ensure it doesn’t reek outside or inside.
The cafe, which has an outdoor patio, will be open from 10am to 10pm and has already started taking reservations, he said, including from people as far away as Japan and Russia, who have said they are traveling to LA to visit the restaurant.
On the cannabis menu, Lowell will offer flower and smoking options and guests can rent pipes or bongs, roll their own joints, or have “flower hosts” roll for them.
The staff will function like wine sommeliers, Brady said, asking guests about their experiences and interests: “How familiar are you with cannabis? What are you looking for? Are you Snoop Dogg or have you not smoked since high school?”
Drummer, who is heading the kitchen, has built a reputation for herself as a cannabis chef, notably preparing a cannabis-infused meal for Chelsea Handler on her show Chelsea Does and working with other celebrity clients and private companies.
“Food and cannabis are both very communal experiences, so to bring them together … is still very fascinating for me,” she said. She’s still finalizing the menu, which will have traditionally healthy dishes like baby kale salad, along with “foods that one would love to indulge in, if they are elevated”, she said. That includes mac and cheese bites, a grilled cheese sandwich, fried chicken, and a “sweet FL(HIGH)T” dessert plate featuring caramel popcorn, ice cream sandwich, bacon, s’mores and other sweets.
The cafe says “all menu items are meant to complement the heightened senses from THC consumption”.
Brady said he expected the business would attract a wide range of customers, including tourists, celebrities and Hollywood screenwriters. His sister, who has two young children, “wants to bring all her PTA mom friends”, he said. “She sees this as a social communal environment that won’t impact the ability to wake up in the morning and take the kids to school or go to yoga and pilates.”
Even in progressive states like California, the cannabis industry has continued to be dominated by white entrepreneurs and excluded communities that have long suffered and continue to suffer from criminalization and the war on drugs.
Roughly 8% of the workforce of Lowell Herb Co, the company behind the cafe, are people with previous cannabis infractions on their record, said Sean Black, a co-founder, adding that this was a priority in hiring for the cafe.
“There is nothing that will make up for the wrongs that were done,” he said. “There are people in other states who are in jail while we are serving fancy meals. It’s inherently unfair.”
The cafe, he hoped, would help tackle remaining stigmas around cannabis consumption: “We want it to have the same respect as fine wine … Cannabis can be a fun recreational part of society, like alcohol, without being dangerous.”
Advocates said they expected this type of business would spread in California and other states, and Drummer said she was aware that people would be paying attention to what happens at Lowell.
“That is a huge deal, and I want to do it justice,” she said.